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The Life and Times of General Sir James Browne
Chapter XI - Eve of the Afghan War: 1877-8


WITH the advance of time the political situation was now approaching a crisis, not on this southern frontier of Afghanistan, but in the north; and, as will be shown, Lord Lytton was specially concerned therewith. But, on this southern frontier, Browne was now comparatively free from his original task of special attention to the Kakurs, and able consequently to devote himself more to the demands of the military situation, as connected with the political prospects; and Lord Lytton fully continued his confidence and trust in him, in the somewhat altered and more critical duties which he would have now to undertake—duties which would naturally include military and engineer work as well as political watch. This was in full conformity to what was going on at Simla and elsewhere.

Colonel Sandeman was of course the chief political and administrative officer on the spot, and there were select military officers present for the conduct of the military preparations. But the real inquisition into the general preparations and arrangements needed was conducted at Simla. Sir Andrew Clarke had already been recently in the Beloochistan direction, and had taken the initiative in furthering the efficiency of the roads and railroads, to such an extent as was in his power, against the coming crisis. Lord Lytton, determined to have every assistance of value that he could command, and having already his recognised Council at hand, had further summoned to his Councils, from leave in England, Sir Richard Strachey, Sir John’s brother, who had formerly been the head of the Public Works Department, and also, besides Sir Lewis Pelly already on the spot, Major St. John, who had more intimate knowledge than any one else of the country from Quetta to Candahar and onwards, and who, as will be seen presently, was to return to Quetta when the war broke out and to resume his political functions with the southern army there.

It may be observed that while Browne had been watching the Kakurs in accordance with specific orders, in order to influence them for the crisis now impending, he had been extending that watch to other tribes in their neighbourhood, not only with the same object of friendliness, but in view of more practical ends, and had spent a couple of months in the district of the Murree tribes, during which he was quite alone. The general result of all this vigorous and judicious action was now beginning to develop when the crisis was about to arise. For he found himself able to arrange for the frontier engineering and preparations with a facility he had hardly dared to expect. This was to a large extent due to the presence in considerable numbers of some of his former gangers and workmen on the Peshawur frontier, chiefly tribesmen of the Ghilzye clan. These, a few at first, had gradually increased in numbers, so as to form a Coolie Corps, if not a sort of Pioneer Brigade. From their exceptional discipline, they could also be relied on not only for mere manual labour, but for postal and other auxiliary duties as well They proved especially valuable in the Khojak Pass and other points in the subsequent march to Candahar and Khelat-i-Ghilzie. This advantage, however, was curiously supplemented by the “Mullah" idea derived from Browne’s “double.” While peace was not yet broken, the rumour, traced to the Ghilzyes, began to spread that Browne was not really a British officer at all, but an Afghan Mullah who was playing a part. It may be said at once that this rumour and conviction grew steadily and lasted, and was stronger than ever at the time of his death in 1896. But it was only now, in the course of Browne’s presence and prominence near Quetta and the Kakur country, that the native rumours about his being a priest or Mahomedan in disguise began to be definitely disseminated.

Browne, it will be remembered, had not been on the Peshawur frontier or near Pathans or Ghilzyes since 1864; but on now appearing in the Cutchee Plain and the Pesheen and Kakur borders, his old familiarity with Pushtoo, the Pathan vernacular, had put him at once on an exceptionally cordial and intimate footing with the Ghilzyes and other Pathans from Afghanistan itself; and, as already noted, he almost immediately began to find himself looked at and regarded and treated in quite an exceptional manner—being addressed as a brother Mussulman and as a Mullah; and his disavowals were replied to sis a matter to be readily understood, and due to secret motives.

There does not seem to be any reason for supposing that Browne either then or ever at any time realised the true facts of the case, though it is not at all unlikely that he guessed at the possibility of there being a quasi-Mullah existing of English origin, possibly a child left behind in the former Afghan war, and now become a naturalised Afghan. He used sometimes to hint at the possibility of a Russian spy.

Later on, when the crisis in the Afghanistan direction began to get more acute, preparatory measures were carried on with greater vigour. These were, of course, chiefly in the hands of the officers of the Engineer and Military Departments, but they were not sorry to have in the Political Department the assistance of so vigorous a colleague as Browne; and so he was now working hard at clearing roads, improving defences, increasing the shelter for troops, and so on, and especially examining the ground where the advance and its flank would lie, and planning the necessary preparatory measures.

It was while he was so engaged at Quetta itself, and busied with the strengthening of the Miri, as the Quetta fort is called, that his attention, and that of his companion Colonel Fellowes, were drawn to a seeming Afghan who was sitting resting on the roadside, but whose extraordinary resemblance to Browne struck them both suddenly and simultaneously, so as to cause a loud exclamation.

This leads to the next phase of the story of the Mullah, “Ishmael Ali,” the Englishman, whom we last left settled down to quiet family life at Mukkur, near Lake Abistade. His repose had not lasted long. After an interval events began to occur which recalled him to the Ameer’s memory, so presently he was summoned to Cabul. The reason for this was that two Russian officers had recently arrived there, and the Ameer desired Ishmael to find out what they

really wanted to do. But they seemed to be mere ordinary spies, without any more definite purposes or powers. The next occasion was later on in 1876, when the Ameer again summoned him to Cabul, but this time told him that troubles with the English were impending and that he wished him to go to Quetta and find out how the land lay there. He duly departed, and as he went onward he learned that the southern tribes, Ghilzyes and Kakurs, were irritated by some fresh imposts which the Ameer had levied on them. He felt and foresaw more and more difficulty as he got nearer the border. So he there buried his passport at a spot where he knew he could readily find it again, went on to Quetta and Shikarpore, and, after completing his inquiries, returned with his information to Cabul, laid it before the Ameer, and warned him strongly, it is believed, as to the real state of affairs and the disaffection towards him. He was again sent to Quetta, more than once, it is thought, and on his last visit in 1878 saw and recognised Browne and with him another of his friends of former days, Major Fellowes. He was interrogated by them, but gave no practical information.

He had been desired to stop and be interviewed; but he had at once seen that the game was up, and had made up his mind to drop this career forthwith, as it could not be safely continued any longer. So he quietly and at once disappeared; and instead of returning to Cabul, proceeded straight off to Sukkur, and thence to Kurrachee and Bombay, and was not again heard of. He sent no communication to his family or friends at Mukkur. His absence was such a common occurrence that it created no surprise, and at his home it was at once accounted for by the rumour that he had been seen at Quetta, posing as an English officer. This occurrence, the last visit of Ishmael Ali to Quetta, must have been about the time of Lord Lytton’s mission to the Ameer, which was stopped at the entrance to the Khyber.

This closed our Mullah’s actual career in the name and character, which he had adopted after the Umbeyla days, of Ishmael Ali—first a traveller, than a hajee, and finally the Mullah of Mukkur; while all the while an ex-British officer. But, far from the supposed Mullah losing his old position of sanctity and weight, it became more confirmed than ever in spirit, though changed in body. It happened in this wise. The Ghilzyes and others had probably been somewhat tantalised occasionally, so long as it might be alleged that one Mullah was alive and well at Mukkur, and another, at the same time, about Quetta, but it does not appear that any one ever saw the Mullah at Mukkur after he thought he had seen him at Quetta. Now, however, after Ishmael Ali’s departure from India there was no further doubt. The Mullah was no longer to be seen at Mukkur, while he seemed very prominent at Quetta. Hence was confirmed the reverence with which Browne was regarded by these devoted Ghilzyes and the immunity from Ghazee attacks which made him an exception among the Feringhees.

Further, it will be presently seen that from the belief that he was their Mullah, the people of Mukkur and emissaries from the family there began to arrive in search of him, in order to ascertain what his plans and wishes really were; and in fact they continued to be in touch and to communicate with him throughout his career up to its very close.

Again, while watching the Kakurs, Browne’s influence with the wild Pathan tribes in general was felt to be exceptionally great, and later on to be due in a measure to some special cause, such as the above rumour, besides his facility with their language, his knowledge of their ways and modes of thought, and his hearty and manly bonhomie. Latterly, as that rumour spread, and especially in the case of the Ghilzyes, their bearing to him had become so singular and marked and devoted in manner that it was quite certain that they were beginning to regard him as a mystery—to believe that he was playing a part, that he was not really a British officer, but a co-religionist, a Mullah from the north, an emissary in disguise and a leader to be implicitly obeyed. He had disparaged the Ameer to them, and in this they were quite ready to agree with him, for the Ameer had been coercing these southern clans, and especially the Ghilzyes, in regard to tributes and revenue. Latterly the rumour became quite specific, and was widely spread and looked on as a fact, that he had been identified as the Mullah who had recently frequented the Mukkur district near Lake Abistade, but had now disappeared from there; who was a hajee, having performed the pilgrimage to Mecca, and was one of the holiest of holy men. All efforts to deny the soft impeachment were now futile. Their manner was, “We quite understand you. Play your part: command us: we obey you.” And such was the situation when the Afghan war began.

This story of Ishmael Ali as being Browne’s double used for some time to be looked on as a fable, based on Browne’s partiality to the Ghilzyes and his singular aptitude in regard to their language, songs, and customs. But it was fully corroborated by Browne’s own narration of the circumstances connected with it.

Meanwhile, it must not be supposed that this chance incident of the great likeness between Browne and the Mullah of Mukkur is not perfectly apart from the notable influence which he exercised over the Ghilzye and other Pathan and Afreedee tribes from the first days of his frontier work in 1860. This affair was additional and of much later date. His habits and camaraderie and influence with them in those early days, sixteen years before his Kakur work and the Mullah story, have been already described, and a few more traits may be added. The wildest, most cut-throat-looking creatures would follow him like a dog for years seeking employment. One of them protected his eldest son in an occasion of danger, and in no instance was it ever known that his trust in them was betrayed. All this is quite apart from the Mullah case.

The first instance of the identity being asserted occurred shortly after Ishmael Ali’s disappearance, when some ten Ghilzye head-men, with followers, came into Quetta, seeking for help against the Ameer. They were men from Mukkur and Lake Abistade, Ishmael Ali’s home, and they all proceeded forthwith to claim Browne’s acquaintance as a neighbour and a Mahomedan. His denial of it they treated as a joke, and quite to be understood; and he raised no objection, as their recognition, though mistaken, might be of use.

The most important of these chiefs was one Adam Khan. He was very ill, and died in three or four days, but very suddenly, of fever; and his followers at once interviewed Browne, and asked him to perform a special burial service for the old man, with certain rites called the Namaz Jenasa, for which they select the holiest priest they can get hold of. To this application, however, Browne gave an explicit refusal, but apparently in such a manner as served only to confirm their impression.

So far Browne’s own proceedings and the Mullah episode so strangely involved with his career have been related; but the immediate future was so completely dependent on other public occurrences— on our own north-west frontier in Afghanistan, in Turkestan, in Russia, and in Eastern Europe—and Browne was watching them so eagerly and sedulously, that these must now be dealt with, but as briefly as possible. The proceedings of Russia must first be described — proceedings which, as before explained, were in two spheres, apparently independent of each other, but, in fact, so intimately connected as to be practically one operation. While the Czar and his own court were playing one game in Europe, and especially in Turkey, Kaufmann and his officers were stirring up Afghanistan and Turkestan; and the astute Skobeleff was guiding in both those directions.

In the west, as has already been shown, Russia had been engaged in war with Turkey, but the treaty of San Stefano, on March 3rd, 1877, had ended it; while, on the other hand, this had left her relations with England more strained than ever, especially as Indian troops were being collected at Malta. In that direction, however, nothing hostile of any importance occurred, though much that may be described as “ snarling ” went on till the Berlin Conference was concluded by the treaty of 1878.

In the east, on the other hand, much aggressive action of importance was occurring. A document, of the greatest gravity, which had been prepared the previous year now saw the light—a scheme, drawn up by Skobeleff, for an invasion of India from the north. This scheme is more fully shown in the work noted below, but its salient points were these: It was based on the view that all India was hostile to the English rule, that the approach of an enemy to the frontier in any serious strength would certainly lead to a general rebellion, and that the large army of Turkestan, freed from hostilities there, swelled by the innumerable horsemen of Central Asia, and co-operating with the Afghans, would join the Indian rebels, wipe out the English, and repeat the old histories of the acquisition of India.

In full accordance with this scheme, but apparently quite independently of it, Kaufmann continued his preparations and movements towards Afghanistan, the initial steps of which have been already mentioned. He had cajoled the Ameer into the idea of an alliance, and had now begun to dispatch to him Stoletoff and other emissaries with powers to conclude negotiations with him on such points as these:

The location of Russian agents at Cabul.

The location of Russian troops on the Afghan frontier.

The construction of roads to .Cabul, Herat, and Candahar, and of corresponding lines of telegraph.

The free passage of Russian troops through Afghanistan and assistance to them in the matter of food and transport.

At the same time, through StoletofFs agency, another agent, named Pashino, was sent to India itself to sow the seeds of rebellion; but he was caught at Peshawur, sent down country, and deported to Russia.

The further story is too well known to need repetition—how the Ameer ostentatiously made much of Kaufmann’s emissaries till news arrived of the Berlin treaty, when they bade their adieux and returned to Turkestan before the end of the year, leaving their deluded victim in the lurch to face by himself the English enemy whom they had led him to challenge.

Further, while they had been taking time by the forelock, and placing a petard, so to speak, at our very gate, to enforce an opening, they had been active in larger and more widespread preparations. An order had been issued for the organisation of three columns for the invasion of India from Central Asia, from Samarkand, Margelan, and Petro-Alex-Androvosk as starting points. But before the projected movements were begun, the Berlin treaty came in the way and stopped the whole business.

It may here be pointed out as a corollary to Lord Palmerston’s account of Russian practice that the officers of the Czar were in a very happy position —they had simply to carry out orders, were not troubled by scruples of conscience as to the means by which success was achieved, were glorified by any success, and if they had carried out orders were not set aside on failure—a contrast to the fate of most English officers, who under similar circumstances would generally have to retire into quiet obscurity.

The Ameer Shere Ali was, of course, the prominent figure—may he not be called the victim?—of the embroglio—the victim, that is, of Russian aggressiveness and of our vacillating policy. There could not be a heartier ally than he had been to us in Lord Mayo’s days, but with our changed demeanour and aloofness during Lord Northbrook’s regime on the one hand, combined with Russia’s ostentatious friendliness and temptations on the other, his fears got the better of him, and he turned from cold, unsympathetic England to the blandishments of the wily tricksters of Russia.

By the time of Lord Lytton’s arrival he had really cast in his lot in the other direction, and had become quite impracticable. The new Viceroy soon saw this, and, as has been shown, made his preparations for the eventualities he foresaw, while omitting no reasonable effort to bring the Ameer into a proper course.

At the same time, this much must, in justice, be said for the Ameer—he was at one alike with his predecessors and with his eventual successors in insisting on the inadvisability and danger of a British representative, resident at Cabul; for whose safety he felt he would be responsible, as was soon proved by the case of the ill-fated Cavagnari.

His admitting Stoletoff to Cabul is quite another matter. He recognised that he would never be responsible for his safety as he would have to be for that of the British Resident—and there was an absurd contrast in their demeanour between the two powers with whom he had to deal.

Unfortunately, at this juncture, in August, the Ameer lost his favourite son, the young Abdulla Jan, and, on the ground of the gravity of the blow, he declined to receive any deputations or to deal with any important business, though he practically showed the falsity of this attitude by continuing his interviews with the Russian delegates who were still at Cabul. The denouement is well known. The British mission duly reached Peshawur; but on moving forwards towards Cabul was at Jumrood refused admittance to the Khyber Pass—and the Afghan war ensued in November? after every reasonable effort had been made to avoid or avert it.

It may be added that, whilst settling on the immediate advance to Ali Musjid and the Khyber on the north, Lord Lytton wrote to Quetta suggesting the sending of Browne thence to the Ghilzye country, supported by the clansmen already at Quetta, in order to arrange about utilising the clan in British interests. On this point, any movement of Browne personally into the Ghilzye (Afghan) country was not possible, and could not be contemplated. But what Browne did was to collect and keep under his eye large bodies of that clan as personal followers, emissaries for information, and quasi-companies of Pioneers for military labour; and most valuable they proved in the impending operations.

To turn now to Lord Lytton. As matters stood, it was hopeless for him to bring about those relations at Cabul which had been one of the main features of the special aim or mission for which he had been appointed to India. It did not affect Browne’s career that there were fluctuations or changes in the steps by which the Viceroy tried to effect that mission; but, of course, he was watching those steps with the keenest zest, in charge as he was of the sister steps, to the same end, on the southern frontier.

On hearing of the Ameer’s reception of Stoletoff, Lord Lytton had determined to send to him a British mission, first intimating to him its special object—a treaty to be entered into that should put the mutual relations on a sound footing, on three important points. This mission he arranged to place under the leading of Sir Neville Chamberlain, whom he knew to be a persona grata to the Ameer. And the home Government fully approved of these measures.

This mission duly proceeded to Peshawur, arrived there on September 12th, and then halted till the arrangements for its farther advance should be completed. The local Afghan commander notified that he could not allow any advance without the Ameer’s specific sanction, and after much delay none was ever received at all; but in the meanwhile Chamberlain and Cavagnari continued negotiations with the quasi-independent tribes that occupied the Khyber Pass. At this stage, the Viceroy too still seemed to receive no practical answers from the Ameer, who, on the other hand, was steadily occupying or strengthening his own positions in the Pass, and had at length punished some of the Khyberee chiefs for communicating with the English.

Unfortunately the home Government did not give Lord Lytton a free hand, but shilly-shallied; which strengthened the Ameer's attitude. But at length the Viceroy was allowed to act; whereupon he withdrew the mission forthwith, and on November 2nd wrote in stern and clear language to the Ameer. His letter was an ultimatum; and in a few days he received from England specific permission to invade Afghanistan on November 21st, if a satisfactory answer had not then been received.

On receipt of this sanction Lord Lytton at once began to take preliminary measures for the operations that would probably be advisable in the event of war; and these measures were, of course, keenly watched by Browne, though they affected himself only partially on that southern district.

For the operations were to be in three lines—two in the north towards Cabul, and the third in the south towards Candahar, which alone directly concerned Browne. The two in the north were to be one from Peshawur under Sir Samuel Browne, through the Khyber and Jellalabad, and the other from the Kurum Valley under General Roberts, through the Shuturgurdun route, having first to seize and dominate the Khost country. The Candahar column was to be eventually under Sir Donald Stewart, but, until his arrival from England, under General Biddulph.

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